Your Google Glasses Might Make You Hallucinate a Little

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Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Over the last couple days, Intelligencer and other outlets have highlighted the story of what appears to be the first — or one of the first — documented instances of Google Glass addiction: According to a case study (PDF) in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a 31-year-old member of the armed forces who had to give up his Glass during treatment for a drinking problem “exhibited significant frustration and irritability related to not being able to use his Google Glass … He reported that if he had been prevented from wearing the device while at work, he would become extremely irritable and argumentative.”

This guy had been using the glasses for up to 18 hours a day prior to his treatment, so it’s understandable that people are focusing on the addiction angle. But on the other hand, it isn’t particularly surprising. Most of us are somewhat addicted to our cell phones and other gadgets, after all, so why should Glass be any different?

I was actually more interested in some of the other symptoms this patient experienced:

He noted that when he dreamed during his residential treatment, he envisioned the dream through the device. He would experience the dream through a small gray window, which was consistent with what he saw when wearing the device while awake… When asked questions by the examiner, the patient was noted on exam to reach his right hand up to his temple area and tap it with his forefinger. He explained that this felt almost involuntary, in that it was the familiar motion he would make in order to turn on the device in order to access information and answer questions.

This is consistent with “game transfer phenomena,” or GTP, a weird cognitive quirk that I’ve written about for the Boston Globe here and here. It’s when you’re playing a game that involves some repetitive sensory elements — images or sounds or button combinations — and aspects of them start to seep into the real world and/or your dreams after you turn the game off.

It’s happened to me in the past, and when it has, it’s always been worst around bedtime — I remember trying to sleep after playing a first-person shooter game and, upon closing my eyes, feeling the sensation of traveling through the game’s hallways and seeing slight hallucinations of walls racing past. Another time, during the height of my GTA IIIplaying days, I was wandering around near my parents’ house and wanted to look behind me, and I could feel the part of my brain responsible for getting me to press the middle mouse button — that is, the command to look behind you in the game — go off. (No, these are not stories I will be telling on first dates anytime soon.)

The authors of the Glass paper do briefly mention this stuff — they use the slightly more familiar term “Tetris effect” — but I’d argue it should be seen as separate from the addiction question. Read the comments section on this Kotaku write-up of one of my GTP columns in the Globe, for instance. A lot of folks chimed in about having experienced similar symptoms from video games, but GTP symptoms seem to also be triggered by repetitive situations in the real world.

I used to work the ovens at Pizza Hut and would constantly have dreams about it,” wrote one commenter. “The ovens worked on conveyers so the food would come at you at a steady pace. In my dreams it was just constant stream of pizza, pasta, and bread sticks, so much so that it’d end up falling on the floor. Then I’d wake up and have to go to work and do it for real…. not fun.” “I remember my first job working at Wal-Mart, I would get home and go to sleep, but all I could think about is checking people out, ringing up items,” wrote another. “It drove me spare, and I had to find some sleeping pills at 2 a.m.”

It’s safe to say these folks weren’t “addicted” to their jobs at Pizza Hut and Walmart. Rather, they were exposed to repetitive stimuli over and over and over and over, and their brains responded in weird, somewhat annoying or distracting ways.

We don’t yet know to what extent Google Glass will induce these symptoms. We do know that the glasses literally impose themselves on their users’ fields of sight, presenting them with information of a visually repetitive nature, and we can safely assume that Glass users will likely wear the device for long chunks of time — all of which suggests that the experience of the Addictive Behaviors case-study subject will not end up being unique.

It’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t any evidence that GTP is anything but a curious little bug in our cognitive hardware — and one that can be induced by real-world activity as well as the latest gadgets — as opposed to something genuinely  harmful. But Glass users shouldn’t be surprised if they start to see ghostly after-images of search queries and Google Maps — especially as they drift off to sleep. (If you’re a Glass user who has, in fact, you should send me an email.)